Someone ought to look this up, but it seems to me that The New Pornographers might hold some sort of record for longest-lasting supergroup, or at least deserve to be on some list of that sort. All of the bandmates are in other functioning bands, four are solo artists…it’s amazing these folks have time to do anything together, let alone continue making music together for as long as they have. And yet, here we are, fourteen years later, getting a listen to their sixth studio album Brill Bruisers. Admittedly, looking at the band’s discography, we began to feel a downward trend with the previous two albums. It felt like they peaked with 2005’s Twin Cinema, and from Challengers into Together, some of us wondered if the season of The New Pornographers was coming to a close, and if Carl Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and the rest would be better served pursuing their other projects. Forget that. With Brill Bruisers, the band have obviously gotten a second wind. The energy is back, the solid lyricism is back, and so is the borderline chaos that comes when seven stellar musicians come together with fresh energy. The result is a New Pornographers album that sounds more like The New Pornographers than we’ve heard in some time, and some of their best collective work in a decade. It’s speculation, of course, but I think perhaps this second wind has come from two important factors. First—there are four years between Together and Brill Bruisers, the longest span we’ve seen between albums for this band. For many bands, this length of time would almost be considered a hiatus, and with Bejar, Case and Newman all putting out acclaimed projects in the interim—maybe this was a needed time of breathing and regrouping. Second—there have been several significant life events for several the bandmates during this time—for example, Case and Newman have both experienced and processed deaths in their families—and those types of things will always have some sort of impact on songwriting and performance. Whatever the reasons, Brill Bruisers breathes deeper (and may we say, rocks harder) than anything we’ve heard from the band in awhile, suggesting we are far from hearing the last of them. That being said, there are some things about supergroups that have to be taken into account when measuring their music—things that tend to throw critics for a loop. For one thing, it’s difficult to define a clear evolution for the band because, in effect, this isn’t an evolving band. Remember, these guys all have other groups or projects that serve as their “main gigs,” which means that coming together as The New Pornographers is probably something akin to an extended summer camp—a place for these busy musicians to catch up, compare notes, and record and play some songs together. What we’re hearing on these records, then, sounds more like snapshots of where the songwriters are at in life, rather than a band progressing together. It also sort of explains the controlled sense of chaos within their sound. That’s not a bad thing—in fact, it’s to be expected. In fact, to expect something more would be unfair. If that’s the lens through which we look at Brill Bruisers, I’d have to say the time apart has done everyone good—but again, because this is “summer camp,” don’t look for any breakthroughs in their sound. After the more controlled, reflective tone of Together and Challengers, this album bristles with energy, drawing from all the retro rock elements of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that get these guys’ blood flowing, rekindling the feel of the early Pornographers that first made us fans. Perhaps the only discernable difference in the sound is that they tend to lean more upon ’80s electronic elements than in some of their previous music (“Backstairs,” “Hi-Rise,” “Champions of Red Wine” and the title track are all good examples)—and ironically, given the current trends in music of the twenty-teens, this actually makes the music sound as current as it is retro. There’s another thing about supergroups, though, that needs to be said: even with a band with the staying power of The New Pornographers, there’s a little bit of hesitancy to connect—always this tinge of doubt because we feel like this isn’t really their “main” gig. The music may be really, really good—and it is, in this case—but we still hold it at arms length, like it’s a fleeting thing. To express it in personal terms, I found myself more able to connect and relate with Neko Case’s latest solo effort The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You than I did with Brill Bruisers. For me, even after all this time, The New Pornographers feels like a side gig, one I can enjoy in the moment, but not one I can rely on to stand the test of time, or one whose songs will make it into my life soundtrack. Just an observation. But then again—that’s not what The New Pornographers are for. This is summer camp.
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